09/16/2014 06:13 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Making Room for More Water: Retreat from the Coast

Sea levels are rising. Louisiana is losing her boot and nuisance flooding now chronically inundates coastal communities in the U.S. during high tides. Two major scientific reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Climate Assessment document the mounting threats posed by climate change to people and project a three to six foot sea level rise by the end of the century. With the newest evidence that the western shelf of Antarctica is collapsing, these estimates may be conservative. People living along coastlines all over the world are at risk.

Here in Alaska, coastal communities face the urgent need to adapt to an ocean that eats away at the shoreline and causes land to permanently disappear. For decades, several Alaskan communities have been struggling to respond to repeated extreme weather events, decreased arctic sea ice and thawing permafrost, which are causing accelerated rates of erosion. Government agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been grappling with the extraordinarily difficult and complex decision of whether it is possible to protect these communities in their current location.

In two reports published in 2003 and 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that flooding and erosion affect 184 out of the more than 220 of Alaska Native villages, with 31 of these imminently threatened and 12 communities planning to relocate. Despite government spending millions of dollars to try to protect coastal communities from erosion by building rock walls and using sandbags to keep land from falling into the ocean, the government has not been able to provide long-term protection.

These dangers are not limited to remote towns in Alaska. The governments of New York and New Jersey are now faced with similar issues. But they are not the only ones. Excepting Delaware, Mississippi and Alabama, every state along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast from New Jersey to Texas has at least 620 square miles of land that could be submerged by a three foot rise in sea level. Regions such as Louisiana and the Chesapeake Bay will experience greater sea level rise because of land subsidence and ocean circulation changes.

According to a 2012 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States have already experienced higher than average rates of sea level rise. Local sea level has risen 12 inches in Miami, 13 inches in Boston, 14 inches in New York, and nearly three feet in Galveston. Inundation from this sea-level rise is evident in many areas of the mid-Atlantic and Louisiana, where high tides regularly flood roads and land that were previously dry. A rise of approximately two feet above today's sea level by 2100 would put more than $1 trillion of property and structures in the United States at risk.

In 2013, the GAO added climate change to its list of high risk issues for the federal government because of the fiscal exposure presented by climate change. These financial risks include extensive federally-owned infrastructure, such as defense installations, which are vulnerable to rising sea levels; the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides private home owners with flood insurance; and federal emergency aid in response to natural disasters.

How much money will be spent to protect people in the places where we currently live before governments decide that the expense is too great and protection in place is not possible? How will managed retreat occur? Who decides, who pays and most importantly, where will people go? These are the questions that need to be asked and answered now.

The December 2013 report of the U.S. Congress Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change recognized the vulnerability of coastal communities to climate change and recommended the development of a program to analyze the policy challenges of community relocations.

Managed retreat and community relocation are not adaptation strategies that government officials or community residents want to contemplate. But the reality is that sea levels are rising and the impact on storm surges will continue to endanger the lives of people residing in coastal communities and cause extensive damage to both public and private infrastructure. Some scientists predict that by the end of this century sea level rise will create storm surges, similar to the ones that occurred with Hurricane Sandy, every 15 years.

If federal and state governments do not have the resources to protect community infrastructure from rising sea levels, people will not be able to live in their homes. Back in Alaska, the state and federal government are no longer investing in infrastructure in coastal communities because of the on-going threats caused by thawing permafrost and accelerating erosion. For these communities, protection in place is not possible and relocation is the only adaptation strategy that can protect them from accelerating climate change impacts. However, with no government agency authorized to provide technical assistance for a community-wide relocation, the statutory barriers to relocation are enormous and these small communities are left in limbo, and in danger.

The possible permanent displacement of millions of people requires a strategic plan to guide the U.S. efforts to adapt to climate change, including the establishment of clear roles and responsibilities among federal, state, and local governments. In the Netherlands, government officials are using a 200 year time frame to plan for climate change impacts. Their primary focus is to make room for more water. This means people will need to move from their current locations. The U.S. has a tremendous opportunity to develop a long-term strategy that adapts to predicted levels of sea level rise along with the increased intensity of storm surges from extreme weather events. The Obama Administration needs to implement the recommendation in the Bicameral Climate Change Task Force report now. We have run out of time, and room.